LIANE HANSEN, host:
Our next story is about a war, memories and a friendship between an old man and a young one who turned those reminiscences into a unique and compelling piece of World War II literature.
Eleanor Beardsley has this report about "Alan's War," the memories of an American G.I. and how it came to be written.
ELEANOR BEARDSLEY: "Alan's War" was born from a chance encounter in 1994 when 30-year-old cartoonist Emmanuel Guibert asked 69-year-old World War II veteran Alan Cope for directions. They were on a small island off the coast of France where Cope lived and Guibert was visiting for the first time.
One 15-minute conversation evolved into a deep friendship that lasted five years until Cope died at the age of 74. Guibert, a budding illustrator at the time, was immediately struck by Cope's amazing memory and proposed that they work on a book together.
Mr. EMMANUEL GUIBERT (Author, "Alan's War"): The first time he started to tell me things about his life and his war, it was on the beach on this little island on which he used to live. That's when I realized that he was fantastic storyteller. For me it's like reading Chekov or a fantastic writer, except that he didn't write. He wrote for me, talking.
BEARDSLEY: Part of what makes "Alan's War" so engrossing are the small but extraordinary stories of his everyday life as a G.I. Guibert says he believes the book's power comes from its frankness and honesty, the fact that Cope tells his stories exactly as he felt about them at the time, and not as someone looking back 60 years later.
Mr. GUIBERT: He wanted to tell things as simply as possible, never adding anything, just the things that happened. That left a fabulous amount of space for the images. He made me want to jump on my drawing table and just start drawing, because I could see very clearly some images which were very evocative.
BEARDSLEY: Guibert's black and white ink washes fuse with Cope's recollections and bring his story alive. Pulled into the tale, the reader no longer distinguishes between word and drawing, and is absorbed into the powerful union of the two. Guibert has been nominated for several comic industry awards for "Alan's War," although it somehow seems unfitting to call "Alan's War" a comic. The graphic novel has long been a mainstream genre in France and is now becoming hugely popular in America.
Cope wasn't a hero, says Guibert, and he arrived in Europe too late to see real battle. He first set foot on European soil in the bombed out French city of Le Havre.
Mr. GUIBERT: And he has to wear these exhausting and terribly heavy loads that the soldier have to carry. And in the middle of this complete mess, one of his fellow soldiers say, Alan, we'll remember this 19th of February. And Alan says, that's my birthday. And he's in the middle of this world in ruins and he's 20 years old.
BEARDSLEY: And he forgot his own birthday.
Mr. GUIBERT: He forgot his own birthday. It was very moving for me to listen to his story 'cause made me realize something that we all know, is that war is always made by kids.
BEARDSLEY: Cope's unit, part of General Patton's Third Army, thrust deep into the heart of Eastern Europe as part of Patton's plan to keep the Soviets from gaining too much territory. But the tiny unit of about 70 men is never followed by any other troops. They find themselves alone and are soon ordered to pull out of Prague. They are told to wear white to protect themselves in the chaotic atmosphere, as Soviet forces advance and the Germans retreat. Cope's unit passes a column of German troops.
Mr. GUIBERT: In front of each German tank, there's a man to guide the tanks. And one of these German soldiers was so amazed to see the Americans all dressed in white, as if they were surrendering, that he stops, forgetting that the tank was behind him and it kept on rolling. And so he was crushed by the tank. And Alan saw that and never forgot it, of course. and I remember the emotion he had 60 years afterward, when he was telling me the episode.
BEARDSLEY: Guibert says Cope gave him the freedom to draw things as he imagined them. And sometimes the two were stunned by how closely the drawings resembled Cope's actual memory. Guibert says there's not a day when he doesn't think of Alan. At the end of the book, Guibert leaves the reader alone in the small kitchen where Cope's life story unfolded.
Mr. GUIBERT: It's just a moment for the reader to take his chair and look at the garden through the window and try to imagine, try to feel with everything he has learned, how it was for me to listen to this man. And you can sit on this chair and stay for a while in this room where we've been so happy.
BEARDSLEY: Guibert proposed a trip to the U.S. with Cope, but he says Cope didn't want to go back. Aside from one short visit after the war, he never returned to his country again. The war had altered his life forever. But with the U.S. edition of their book, Guibert says he feels the two of them are taking that trip to America after all.
For NPR News, I'm Eleanor Beardsley in Paris.
HANSEN: And you can check out an excerpt of the graphic novel "Alan's War" on our Web site, npr.org.